BELMONT PARK - It's been a while, about 20 months, since Joking was seen in the winner's circle after the Grade 1 Vosburgh, which punched his ticket to the 2016 Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Sprint for owner-trainer Charlton Baker.
Joking never got a chance to run in the Breeders' Cup. The now 9-year-old son of Distorted Humor developed life-threatening pneumonia soon after arriving in California, but has fully recovered and is ready for a comeback in the 40th running of the Grade 2, $250,000 True North Handicap on Friday at Belmont Park.
||Luis Carvajal, Jr.
||Bobby Abu Dhabi
||Ricardo Santana, Jr.
"I'm excited to get him back to racing," Baker said from his base at Finger Lakes. "He looks like he's ready to compete."
The True North is one of five stakes races on the second day of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, and comes a day before Justify attempts to win the Triple Crown in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
A field of eight was entered for the True North, a 6 ½-furlong dirt race for 4-year-olds and up. Also entered were Bobby Abu Dhabi, Limousine Liberal, Whitmore, Westwood, Recruiting Ready, Always Sunshine and Imperial Hint.
Joking is the best horse Baker's ever saddled, having been claimed as a 5-year-old in 2014 for $20,000. The horse, who broke his maiden in 2012 in his third start, was 1-for-11 when he came to Baker's barn. By 2016, Joking was a serious racehorse, winning four straight, capped by the True North and the Vosburgh.
"He was my first graded stakes winner and first Grade 1 winner, so when he got sick I really want to save his life," Baker, who has been training horses for 20 years, said. "His presence in the barn is just so nice. He's a special horse."
Manny Franco, who was aboard Joking for his winning streak, the return call again.
"I'm anxious to ride him. He's really a nice horse," Franco said.
Joking was treated at the Chino Valley Equine Hospital by Dr. Andreas Klohnen for several months after he became ill. Baker said it was "touch and go" for about the first 45 days. Joking returned East in January, 2017, was cared for by Dr. Patty Hogan in New Jersey, spent time on the farm recovering and returned to training last October.
Joking's lifetime record stands at 39-10-8-8 for earnings of $846,138.
Rockingham Ranch and David A. Bernsen's Bobby Abu Dhabi won the Grade 2 Kona Gold in his last start after a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Triple Bend in his first start of the year.
"He has really matured for us the past few months," trainer Peter Miller said of his 4-year-old chestnut son of Macho Uno, who will be ridden by Victor Espinoza.
"He's become a bigger, stronger version of the horse we had last year."
Katharine G. Ball's 6-year-old Limousine Liberal won the Grade 2 Churchill Downs in his last start and has career earnings of more than $1.3 million.
Ron Moquett's Southern Springs Stables, Robert LaPenta and Head of Plains Partners Whitmore looks to improve on his third-place finish in last year's True North. Trained by Moquett, the 5-year-old son of Pleasantly Perfect is 10-for-19, with three seconds and two thirds, earning $1.5 million.
"I think he's better [than last year]. He's smarter, or we're learning little things about him all the time," Moquett said. "He's teaching us how he wants to be trained."
Godolphin Racing LLC's Westwood heads into the race off a victory in the Runhappy at Belmont - the 4-year-old son of Bernardini's first stakes win and third win in four starts in 2018.
Raymond Mamone's Imperial Hint won four of five races last year, including a pair of G3 sprints, and ran second to Roy H in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Sprint. The 5-year-old was sixth in the Churchill Downs on May 5.
Stonehedge LLC's Always Sunshine is a graded stakes winner coming off a third-place in the Runhappy, and Sagamore Farm's Recruiting Ready won an optional claimer at Belmont in his last start.